Author Robert McClain, Denham Springs, LA
Her call never came. It never would. He alone was to blame.
Strolling south along the surf, Aidan Fraser found his focus stolen by the steady hum of the elevated LevRail streaking downtown. The train from Arbroath, 300 miles and thirty minutes to the north, whooshed past, hugging the shoreline. Pausing at an ancient wharf jutting a hundred yards out to sea, he glanced back at the Utlanburgh skyline jutting above the hills.
Leaving the beach, he kicked sand from his shoes before stepping over a dead horseshoe crab. After adjusting his hat to keep it from sailing on the wind, he ambled along the deserted pier, hands clasped behind his back. The cracked and rotted planks bore a stench of decay, mildew, and fish. At the pier’s end, he leaned against the waist-high railing while the stiff salt-laden gusts whipped the plaid kilt around his knee socks.
The final rays of daylight glimmered off the whitecaps. Swells of hazy blue water slapped against the pylons, and he drew his lungs full of moist evening air. Brushing his palm along the barrier’s slimy top plank, he moved from one corner to the other. Old Bridget had said it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Well, he was alone now.
Aidan searched the azure heavens. Memories brushed past his mind’s eye, and for several quiet minutes he experienced every emotion those recollections provoked. After twelve months, he’d ceased hoping whenever the phone rang. Sometimes at night, he’d still awaken and reach for her but touch only the cold reality of an empty pillow. A year ago, he’d been a scientist dedicated to solving the mysteries of the universe. Now, he was bone-weary and determined to announce his retirement from the Institutes. Aidan sighed. “You created a helpmeet. But I am alone again.”
A plank creaked. He flinched and glanced back, fearing he might have been overheard addressing the sky. A woman clad in a strapless blue evening gown stared up at him, taking his measure. She was taller than average for a female, a bit more than seven feet, and she looked to be in his age range, thirty-five to forty. Ebony hair swept down into a twist and dangled against her neck, contrasting with alabaster skin, prominent cheekbones, and deep-set blue eyes. He sensed an air of authority about her.
“Solset is my favorite time of day,” she said.
“Solrise is mine.”
“Ah. A morning person. Don’t know too many of those.” The woman glanced about then made her way to his side. She gave him a shy smile. “Lady Campbell asked me to fetch you back.”
He peered at her open-toed sandals then looked away. Aidan didn’t know whether to be peeved at the interruption of his deepest thoughts, or grateful to be rescued from them. “I popped out to clear my head, but it’s best not to offend the duchess. However, she should have sent a servant, not a guest.”
“Her Ladyship pointed you out from the patio and suggested I collect you straight away. One does not deny a request from the Duchess of Athol.” She extended her hand. “Dr. Trish Cunningham. I’m on staff at the Neuropsychiatric Center for Tranent Hospital.”
Aidan hadn’t expected a prolonged conversation, but the woman did seem interesting. “I’m not familiar with Tranent.” He reached for the offered hand and gave her knuckles a light kiss. She proved slow to withdraw.
Dr. Cunningham’s eye shadow sparkled in sol’s fading glow, and her ruby lips glistened. “It’s here in Prestonpans, along Gladsmuir Boulevard. Do you live around here?”
He moved toward the beach and the long escalator rising to the Duke of Athol’s manor. “I’m just visiting.”
She lengthened her stride. “Let me guess, from Glastonbury?”
“Mostly, but I shuttle between there and our facility in the northern hemisphere.”
“Either way, you’re a long way from home.”
He managed a slight smile. “I’m Aidan Fraser.”
She wrinkled her brow. “Any relation to the geologist?”
The sense of loss again overwhelmed him. “Clare…was my wife.”
“I’m truly sorry. I should have guessed. I’m an idiot sometimes.” They stepped on the escalator together, but she moved one step above him to equalize their difference in stature. As they ascended the two hundred feet to the top of the palisades, Trish bit her lip. “Do you miss her?”
He gave her a lengthy stare. “No doubt the same way you’d miss your husband if he were taken from you in the prime of life.”
She waved her hand. “I guess I’ll never know.”
“You’re not married?”
“Oh my, no. There was college, graduate school, medical school, then residency. I had no time for social gatherings. She tossed her head, sending her twist sweeping from shoulder to shoulder. “So, what do you do in both hemispheres, Aidan Fraser?”
“I’m Director of the Institutes for Quantum Research.”
Trish cocked her head. “I’m used to gentlemen passing themselves off as intelligence agents or as officers in the Republican Guard.” She smirked. “This is a first.”
Upon reaching the top of the moving staircase, they stepped onto the patio. A long shadow swept across the deck in the soft glow of bulbs strung along the mansion’s eaves. Aidan glanced up and spotted Lauren Campbell heading their way.
Trish performed a short but awkward curtsey. “Your Ladyship.”
Lauren returned a slight acknowledging nod then put her hand around Aidan’s upper arm and eased him out of earshot. “I haven’t seen Fraser plaid since the schism,” she said. “I’ve always loved that particular blend of blues and greens.”
The Duchess of Athol had aged well, he thought. A few creases ’round the eyes besmirched her otherwise flawless complexion, and her haunting sea green eyes that once enthralled him remained as bright and clear as he remembered. The rounded chin, full lips, and willowy blonde hair—now cut short—quickened more than a few pulses back in the day. She still quickened his.
Lauren got straight to the point. “What do you think of Dr. Cunningham?”
He furrowed his brow. Lauren had quite the reputation as matchmaker. “We’ve only met. In fact, you sent her looking for me.”
“Did she tell you she’s never been married?”
He stepped back to put distance between them. As always, if Lauren didn’t like reality, she set out to change it. “I do believe the subject was broached, yes.”
“His Grace wishes you to join him for cognac and cigars in the study.”
“I don’t drink—”
“He knows, Aidan. He knows.”
One did not turn down the duke’s request. “Where is his study?”
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Aidan told Trish he’d be back in fifteen minutes. She promised to wait for his return. Then he caught up to Lauren. “What does he wish to discuss?”
“Wyllyym keeps his own counsel. I’m only part of the décor.” She stiffened and knocked on the study door.
She turned the knob and took a half step inside. “Dr. Aidan Fraser, Your Grace.”
Aidan sidestepped Lauren and entered the spacious study as the door closed behind him. Each teak paneled wall held shelves carrying expensive first-editions on history, science, mathematics, politics, and law. None of the spines had cracked. The collection was for show, something it and Lauren had in common, it seemed.
Dressed in Campbell orange and blue plaid with a black formal waistcoat, Wyll motioned Aidan to join him at the bay window behind his ornate mahogany desk. On the credenza nearby steamed a pot of aromatic tea alongside a snifter of cognac. The duke poured a drink for himself while Aidan procured an earless porcelain tea cup and filled it.
After handing him a cigar, the duke lit his and blew a smoke ring toward the exhaust fan in the ceiling. Striking a match, Aidan followed suit but grimaced at the hot taste in his mouth.
“What is this I hear about your mulling retirement?” The question slackened Aidan’s jaw. The duke smiled. “Don’t deny it. I have plenty of eyes and ears in Glastonbury and Xerea.”
“I wasn’t thinking of gainsaying you, Your Grace. I’m merely surprised anyone might be privy to my intentions.”
“What do you plan to do after you leave the Institutes?”
“I hadn’t given that question much thought. Buy a domo somewhere, and just take life easy for once.”
The duke smiled and shook his head. “You’ll be bored out of your gourd in three months’ time, and I do believe you know that.”
“Perhaps I’ll teach at the university. The Chancellor offered me the physics chair on more than one occasion. Now might be the time.”
The duke leaned closer and whispered. “What if you worked for me, instead? You’d be well recompensed, and far less would be required of you than if you chaired a university department.”
Aidan took a long draw of hot tea and swallowed. “Begging Your Grace’s pardon, but my retirement income is sufficient to pay foreseeable monthly expenses. However, I do wish to express my gratitude toward your generous offer.”
The warm smile on Campbell’s countenance froze. The Duke of Athol wasn’t used to having his offers refused. He set his glass atop the credenza and folded his arms. “Let’s get to the nub of it, shall we? The Xereans launched Discovery-7 to the solar system nearest ours. Familiar with it?”
Aidan set his tea cup back on the tray. “I assisted in its launch thirteen years ago.”
“The probe returned three months ago. The Xereans are holding a debriefing at noon, Eastern Standard. Local time is six o’clock tomorrow morning. Because you have a top level security clearance, you can attend the debriefing. I’d like you to sit in and report back to me. If it’s legitimate, I foresee lucrative investment opportunities.” Campbell pulled out his cheque book. “I’m willing to recompense you for the trouble, say three months of your salary as Director?”
The age-old conflict: need for money versus refusal to be bought. “Thank you. That’s quite generous. Where would this debriefing take place locally?”
“At the Royal Observatory and Planetarium here in Prestonpans.”
Aidan bowed his head. “Your Grace, it shall be my pleasure.”
Campbell’s features softened. “Excellent. Now, one additional item. The Xerean president has asked to see you…personally.”
Aidan frowned. “Why me?”
“It could be any number of things. Maybe he wishes to talk you out of retirement. You’ve served their republic well, and I believe he’s hoping to continue your services. Or…it could be something else entirely. I advise you to watch your back. August Hengeman is never to be trusted.”
“Good. I’ll make the appointment to see Hengeman. One more thing, Aidan. Lauren is hoping you and a certain unattached medical doctor will hit it off. The duchess simply cannot abide the thought of you being alone. She says you don’t do well without a woman directing your life.”
Smiling, Aidan crushed the hot ash on his cigar. “She’s already hatched the plot. I met Trish Cunningham and plan to see her after our meeting.”
“Excellent. Now, how about a few days at the beach after the Discovery debriefing? I’ll lend you the keys to our condo at Sand Point along Stardust National Seashore. Spend a few days, enjoy the surf, and I’ll telephone you when Hengeman squeezes you into his busy schedule.”
“That’s very generous, Your Grace, but I have a suite at the Montrose, and—”
“Lauren tells me you’re quite the astronomer. Have you ever seen the night sky over Stardust?”
It’d been years since he’d last studied the greatest story ever told, writ large in the stars. The good news, recorded in the constellations, confirmed the Creator’s existence and His love for hominid kind.
The chance to get an unobstructed view of the constellations would allow him to study the story in the stars—something he hadn’t been able to do at either institute. The ambient light above Glastonbury and Xandax rendered them unreadable. “I’m sore tempted, Your Grace.”
“That’s the spirit! Why don’t you ask the good doctor to accompany you?”
Aidan pressed his lips together. “I can’t ask Trish to join me.”
“Why not? One phone call from me, and she’ll have time off from work, no questions asked.”
Aidan’s cheeks warmed, and he glanced at the floor. “Thank you, but that shan’t be necessary.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re still a Mystic at heart. Would it help to remind you I own a three-bedroom condo? You do not have to sleep with her.”
“Sharing living space with the opposite gender is inappropriate. Thank you for the use of your condo.” Bowing his head again, Aidan backed toward the exit. “Your Grace.”
Caitlin Drummond pushed through a wall of ferns double her height and stumbled over an exposed root, slamming face-first to the ground. Her left knee scraped against jagged bedrock, tearing another hole in her fatigues. She curled her lips in a defiant sneer and spat out slug-infested loam. Jerking her head sideways to escape the pungent odor, she wiped her face and tongue on her sleeve.
Around her, oversized flitting insects buzzed and hummed. Dragonflies the length of her forearm swarmed around her head as if investigating an Unidentified Fallen Object. A macaw squawked somewhere above, mocking her predicament. Caitlyn gritted her teeth and pushed into a crouch, the bloody knee throbbing beneath her.
The journey is too far. Give up.
Caitlyn ignored the whisper. She’d spent too many years preparing mind and body to simply give up now. Wiping her brow free of perspiration, she filled her lungs to capacity then craned her neck to peer through the forest’s canopy of leaves and pine needles. Daylight was faint but still at hand.
Struggling to her feet, she swatted at a swarm of gnats then limped a few additional steps. Caitlyn stumbled against a massive redwood. With fingers stiff from digging roots, she yanked at the soaked tunic sticking to her armpits then popped the top three buttons to allow the oncoming breeze to cool her.
Movement at eye level grabbed her attention, and she threw her head back. A gecko flicked its tongue along the moist tree bark. She had been without water for over a day and had no idea how far the next stream or lake might be. Locking her elbows, Caitlyn opened her mouth wide and pressed cracked lips to rivulets of heavy dew dripping between ridges in the bark. She licked the tree’s wetness, inhaling the aroma of luscious sap. Her swollen tongue welcomed the sticky sweetness and licked faster, moving up and down and side to side until she consumed enough moisture to slake her thirst.
If only she could find more to eat. Roots, nuts, and berries provided only a subsistence diet, and if she didn’t soon reach the border, all her effort would have been for naught.
Wilding is too arduous. You’ll never make it.
Caitlyn sneered at the taunting voices. Failure was not an option. The derisive echoes ceased for the moment. But, the wraith-like tormentors would return. They always came back. Three taunting spirits, cavorting just beyond the grasp of her rational mind, offered variations of the same theme. Surrender. Failure. Defeat.
She forced herself to look up. Shafts of silver pierced the foliage like tiny spotlights. The farther southwest she traveled, the more hours Sol remained above the horizon.
Yesterday, Caitlyn spotted a seagull circling a glen. She’d seen two more today cruising over empty moor. Sometimes, when the wind shifted, she smelled and tasted salt in the air. She was nearing the end. Best to keep moving. Perhaps by nightfall, she would reach the border.
There is no shame in surrender, only in death.
Pressing her palms hard against her ears, Caitlyn gritted her teeth. “Shut up…leave me alone!”
After departing almost eight weeks and nine hundred miles ago, each specter accompanied her every step of the way. The closer she came to escaping the wilderness, the less subtle their temptation to accept defeat. But she preferred death over failure. Caitlyn had nothing left to live for, otherwise.
Aidan trod the hallway leading back to the Equinox Ball. A strengthening bewilderment seized him. He’d only been on Utlandia’s west coast for fewer than forty-eight hours, and already events were moving in directions he did not like and at a speed that worried him. He did not intend to end up in the duke’s employ.
Maneuvering through knots of chatting people, Aidan edged in front of the orchestra, his eye catching the murals painted on gold wallpaper that had been pounded into sheets only a fraction of an inch thick. He slowed to take a longer, more longing look, then reached the patio in search of the interesting physician. As he neared the exit, he found Dr. Cunningham waiting for him. He half smiled for a moment as he ambled out into the night air.
“You two know each other, you and her Ladyship.”
Her statement brought him up short. “We…used to be an item…a long time ago.”
“Hmm. Seems as though there’s still a spark. What did her husband have that you lacked?”
Aidan shrugged. “Noble birth. Marry Sir Wyllyym and one day become the Duchess of Athol. Marry me and be a lowly scientist’s wife.”
“Beware. I suspect the duchess has plans for you.”
Trish gave him a wicked smile then waved as if to dismiss his concern. “Come on, I’ll tell you over a tumbler of Utlanfiddych.”
He trod back across the dance floor with Trish Cunningham at his side, their arms brushing against each other as they moved. Entering the well-stocked bar, Aidan ushered her to a corner table, its surface covered in garnet, the surrounding ebony chairs inlaid with ivory and lapis lazuli. Everywhere he looked were unsubtle reminders of grand opulence—the only reason Lauren had chosen someone as insufferable as Wyllyym Campbell.
Upon ordering the single-malt whiskey, he asked for unsweetened Anthropian tea. Aidan took a second, longer, look at Trish. She had the wizened face of someone acquainted with trouble and grief. Their eyes met and locked. He set their drinks on the table and took a seat opposite her. “So, you’re a physician in an NP ward. You enjoy your work?”
She took a healthy sip of amber liquid, swished it like a mouthwash, swallowed and grimaced. After her nostrils stopped flaring, she set the glass down. “Quite. Neurological disorders intrigue me, always have.”
“Such as schizophrenia, or…?”
Trish gave him a patient look, her head tilted to the side, a bemused smile on her lips. “Epilepsy and schizo-affective behavior, also dementia and bi-polar disorder. What about you?”
“Most of what I do is classified.”
“Uh-oh. That’s what all those fake intelligence agents said when I asked them questions.”
Aidan snared the cup in front of him and reclined in his chair. “In this case, it’s true. I can tell you I invented a method for collecting and focusing particle energy. One day, it’ll make all other sources redundant.”
“Sounds interesting, but why go to all the trouble?”
“Petroleum pollutes the atmosphere and magnetricity is often interrupted by fluctuations in the magnetic field. Particle energy makes both obsolete.”
She stared at him over her glass. “Interesting, but why is that classified?”
“The design has certain military uses. What most intrigues you about NP?”
Trish fidgeted, as though she’d expected a different question and now had to change mental gears. “I guess my specialty is the God Spot.”
“It’s in the right temporal lobe, just in front of and above the ear and includes part of the limbic system. It’s where we process emotions and memories. The God Module, or God Spot, is activated whenever patients experience the delusion of communication with a mythical supreme being. Sometimes, too, when patients believe they’ve had a near-death experience.”
“I see. How did you become interested in that particular discipline?”
“My grandmother. She heard the voice of an imaginary god. About one percent of the population suffers from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, though actual communication with Sky Daddy is much rarer.”
Aidan believed in the Creator since early childhood. Trish spoke as if such faith was a mental health issue. He would have begged to differ but did not dare.
She leaned forward and locked her gaze to his. “I was just a little girl then, but I loved visiting my grandmother. Then, for reasons no one would tell me, we stopped visiting. My parents said Grandmother had become ill and no longer lived at home. When I got older, they told me the truth.”
Bridget’s face flashed through his mind. She’d once told him about family in Utlandia who’d stopped visiting after she’d been banished.
“Mind if we change the subject?”
He exhaled a little at a time to mask his relief. “Not at all.”
“For reasons I shan’t go into—for the moment, at least—Her Ladyship offered us use of their condo up in Stardust National Seashore.”
“Really? That’s quite a coincidence. His Grace made the very same offer.”
“Did you agree?”
“I’m more interested in knowing why.”
“Fine, but keep this tucked into your knee sock. Her Ladyship claims her husband is quite concerned now that you’re back on the west coast and a widower. She said he’s always been jealous of you, and from what I’ve gleaned, their marriage is pretty much on the rocks. The duke worries Lauren and you might rekindle the relationship you once had.”
“That’s absurd. Lauren made her choice, and I think she made the proper one. She wants for nothing.”
“Except companionship. Her Ladyship is quite lonely.”
He leaned closer and lowered his voice further. “I’m curious what answer you gave Her Ladyship.”
Trish drained her glass and set it back on its coaster. She regarded him for several seconds. “It’s been a real pleasure, Aidan. I thank you for the interesting conversation.” She pushed to her feet and slid her business card across the table. “Call me tomorrow.”
After she departed, he couldn’t help thinking he’d just met a true force of nature. Slumping back in his seat, Aidan sipped his remaining tea. He had to hand it to Lauren Gillean-Campbell. She knew just whom to choose. When he returned to the Montrose, he’d telephone Trish’s answering service and suggest breaking the matins fast in the morning. He wouldn’t rest until he knew the whole story about her grandmother.
Nine billion lives depend on one man’s ability to recover a technological nightmare.